Second Draft

Let’s Hear it for Technology

Posted in Writing by Michael Skeet on Sunday, May 30, 2010

The weather in Toronto today was/is gorgeous: sunny, hot, and not so humid that I can’t stand it. So Jill & I have been indulging ourselves by writing face-to-face (normally we telecommute, as it were) under the Dread Gazebo in hers and Do-Ming’s back yard.

I don’t know that this face-to-face thing makes a huge difference to our writing technique (which I fully realize I have yet to describe properly, as I have been threatening to do), because we haven’t said a whole lot, and most of what we have said we’ve said using IM, just as if we’d been telecommuting. But this al fresco writing thing does seem to have affected our productivity: nearly two thousand words between us this afternoon. Trust me: for us that’s a good day.

I have been working on my travel notebook, a tiny perfect Sony Vaio X. This is the perfect tech for backyard writing, in fact: as a word processor it has a battery life of over ten hours, and a screen resolution that allows me to look at about thirty lines of text on a browser. As far as I’m concerned, this beats hell out of using pen and notepad, the way I used to write.

A Better Sort of Gulag

Posted in Drink by Michael Skeet on Sunday, May 30, 2010

Lorna and I threw a small Prison Break party for Peter Watts a few weeks ago, to celebrate the better-than-odious (’cause you can’t can’t really call what happened to him good even though he doesn’t have to do time) resolution to his encounter with the U.S. punishment system (’cause you can’t really call it justice, can you?). We even provided a cake with a file hidden in it (said file courtesy of Jill).

I generated a series of celebratory cocktails, and somebody came up with the brilliant idea of giving them prison- or prisoner-themed names. (There was a Number 6, for example.) Peter’s favourite of the various drinks was the Gulag, and so I’ve decided to publish the recipe here. It’s a very easy drink to make, but one of the ingredients isn’t exactly easy to obtain.


1.5 ounces vanilla vodka

0.75 ounces ice cider

Combine in a shaker filled with ice and shake vigorously. Serve in a cocktail glass, garnished with a cherry. (Alternately, serve over ice in an old fashioned glass.)

The ice cider we use comes from Quebec; occasionally we find it at the LCBO. I have no idea how available ice cider is outside of Canada. Note that regular hard cider is not an acceptable substitute.

Shout It Out? Unlikely

Posted in Research,WorldBuilding by Michael Skeet on Thursday, May 13, 2010

Spent rather too much time, recently, on my back as a result of the influenza. One of the things I did to entertain myself, while my head throbbed and the world spun, was to watch a borrowed copy of the “Shogun” miniseries from three decades ago. It was the first time I’d seen “Shogun” since its initial airing, and I discovered that a lot of what I thought I remembered about it was, well, wrong.

But I’m not writing to complain about my memory. What was I writing about? Oh, yeah. There was one thing that suddenly made me say “Hmmmm…” as I watched. And it wasn’t the historical inaccuracy (First use of firearms in battle in Japan in 1600? Really?) No, it was one of those things that likely wouldn’t have occurred to me at all if my brain had been working properly. I was watching the big set-piece, leading up to the drippy heroine getting herself blowed up real good, and shortly after the villainous samurai had stabbed his third or fourth minion in the back, I found myself wondering…

How did they clean up all the blood?

Srsly, people. Killing was supposedly anathema to Buddhists (Jill says samurai just automatically expected to go to hell) and blood and death were serious defilement to Shintoists. So when there was some sort of treachery, and blood was spilled (despite what most TV and movies would have you believe, sword wounds could bring out tremendous amounts of blood in a short time; watch the remarkable ending of Sanjuro to get an idea), how did it get cleaned up, and did everybody have to leave the house/mansion/castle until it could be purified again?

I’m pretty sure that the answer to the second question is Yes, though I’ve never seen reference to it. Even in Throne of Blood, where there’s specific reference to a bloodstain that still disfigures a room, there’s no description of the cleaning process.

As for the first question, the logical persons to do the cleaning were Burakumin. But what self-respecting samurai would have those people in his house?

As I said, it’s perplexing. Feel free to offer suggestions in the comments. (In the meantime, I’m feeling much better now, I apologize for my prolonged absence, and I’m looking forward to getting back to writing again.)

How We Do It: An Interpolation (and cautionary tale)

Posted in Writing by Michael Skeet on Thursday, April 15, 2010

Some of you, constant readers that you are, will have noticed my recent silence. There’s a story behind that…

Jill and I are writing Demon Gate using Google Docs. There are advantages to this (and disadvantages, of course), and they will be the subject of a future How We Do It post (I promise). I can, however, speak very clearly to one perceived advantage of using Google Docs.

I have, until recently, been spending a lot of my free time working on the final revisions to a project that predates Demon Gate. My agent has, in fact, been waiting for the last draft of this novel since late December of last year; various interruptions caused by my day job have prevented me from spending as much time on these revisions as I wanted.

As of mid-March, however, I was finally able to make the time to do the work, and was making very good progress.

Now, I’m somewhat nervous about backups, so I have a tendency to do so somewhat excessively. I’m not precisely scientific about it, though: what I do is work on a file that lives on my USB drive, and every few days I copy that file onto the hard drive of my of my computers. Yes, I use several computers (four, at last count); doesn’t everybody?

Anyway, at the end of last year my business bought a couple of new machines, and these new machines run Windows 7 and Office 2007. I am still learning some of the ins and outs of the way my normal practices work on this new software. And so it came to pass that, on 17 March, I went to back up my novel…

…And accidentally copied the destination file onto the source file. In other words, I replaced the current version of the novel with a version that (thanks to my rotation of backups) was over two weeks old.

I wiped out some 200 pages of revisions.

It’s easy for me to write about this now, a month later, because in the interval I have restored (more or less) the lost revisions, and finished the final draft of the novel. And I’ve become a lot more careful about the way I back up my files.

The point of this post, though, is that with Google Docs the whole back-up issue sort of goes away. Or at least it mutates into a different sort of issue (who ultimately has possession of your work?), but that’s an issue for a later message.

Anachronistic, Perhaps. But Tasty!

Posted in Drink by Michael Skeet on Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I have been experimenting with alcoholic infusions lately (apple-infused tequila is quite wonderful) and, as an afterthought at the end of a cocktail party a couple of months ago I tried something that’s appropriate to the spirit of Demon Gate if not necessarily defensible as being period-accurate.

From the back of our fridge I took the remnants of an old (very old) plastic tub of shiso-umeboshi (that’s pickled plums with a bit of shiso leaf to add extra flavour, not unlike putting dill in with pickled cucumbers) and dumped them into a small mason jar. Then I filled the mason jar with barley shochu. (Remember, that’s the only kind we can get up here, at least for now.) Then I put the mason jar in the fridge and forgot about it.

Fast-forward to last Thursday. Looking for something to drink, I spotted the shochu, glowing wickedly in the fridge. I dropped some ice into an Old Fashioned glass, and filled same with the infused shochu.

Oh. My.

Yeah, it was that good. And a really lovely shade of purple-pink, too. No, I don’t have a photo to show you; not in this post. That’s because I drank it all too quickly to think of taking a shot in any sense that didn’t involve shot glasses. As it were. However, I’ll try to post something about this experiment again in another couple of months, because as soon as I’d finished drinking the single glass I got from that small jar, I began infusing a much larger quantity of shochu in a larger mason jar.

I figure it’ll be great this summer.

How We Do It Pt 2: Structure

Posted in Collaboration by Michael Skeet on Friday, March 12, 2010

I envy authors who have the luxury of just writing whatever their muses dictate. When you’re working on a collaborative project you don’t have the option. Our work is (possibly) not as rigorously structured as would appeal to certain anal-retentive engineer types we know, but it has to be much more deliberately thought-out than would be the case for a project worked on by a single writer.

When Jill and I agreed that we would work on Demon Gate together, we were able to jump past some of the basic questions any writer faces when starting a new project: we knew who many of the characters would be, and we knew the milieu in which the story would be set (in both cases because Demon Gate was to be a follow-on of our novella “Beneath the Skin”).

At the same time, though, we didn’t have the luxury of allowing the form and structure of the story to emerge over the course of the first draft. Because of the way we work (more on this later), we had to lock down at least some idea of the novel’s structure before we could move on to the next phase of work.

We started with the idea that we would be continuing the moral education of our protagonist, Satoshi. The ending of “Beneath the Skin” was fairly ambiguous (deliberately so, I hasten to add), and we wanted to make it clear that Satoshi still had some growing up to do. With this in mind we agreed on a simple, traditional three-act structure:

  • Act I would have its own three-part structure, in which Satoshi is tempted, gives in to temptation, and then has to endure his whole world apparently falling apart
  • Act II would see  Satoshi and his brother, Masahiro, escape disaster and try to restore their fortunes from hiding
  • Act III would likewise have a three-part structure, in which Satoshi tries to defeat his nemesis without changing the attitudes that got him into trouble in the first place, is nearly destroyed, and then makes the personal leap that allows him to triumph

We settled on most of this during a single planning session. As I recall, it took only a couple of hours to hammer out the basics, including some preliminary plot sketches.

Whether or not other writers are quite this calculated at the beginning of a project (and certainly I have not been in any of the novels I’ve written thus far), determined calculation was, we thought, the only effective method available to us that would allow a fast start.

We did this work in a face-to-face session. But as Pt 3 will demonstrate, technology means we weren’t required to work this way.

How We Do It Pt 1: Why

Posted in Collaboration by Michael Skeet on Wednesday, March 3, 2010

At last year’s Worldcon in Montreal I chaired a panel on collaboration. I was, if you’ll forgive me, a logical choice, having written a fair amount in collaboration over the years, and having had two pieces (“I Love Paree,” written with Cory Doctorow, and “Beneath the Skin,” written with Jill) published.

I was a bit surprised, when the panel got underway, to learn that with the exception of those panelists from the Cecil St group, none of the participants had ever collaborated in what I’ll call an equal partnership. No offence to the others (I won’t name them, mostly because I can’t remember all of them, I don’t want to leave anyone out, and I’m too busy—or lazy—to go back through my notes), but it seems that to a one they collaborated in some variant of the following fashion:

  1. Well-known writer gets an assignment.
  2. Writer realizes s/he won’t have the time (or doesn’t have the interest) to complete the assignment.
  3. Writer recruits another, more junior, writer to help.
  4. Well-known writer puts together an outline and character notes, to varying degrees of detail.
  5. Junior writer writes the project based on these notes.
  6. Well-known writer vets and/or edits the result.

That wasn’t what I had in mind when I set out to write up interview questions for the panel. Yes, it’s collaboration of a sort. But the collaboration I had in mind was more the sort I’ve experienced, where two writers of roughly equal standing work on a project together from start to finish.

The difference between the reality I learned about at Worldcon and my own experience of collaboration is one of the bigger reasons for Second Draft‘s existence, really. And so I hope, over the next few weeks, to write out (as I work it out in my own head) the mechanics of the collaboration Jill and I are working on now, with comparisons to my previous experiences. And I may collect similar experiences from friends, because Cory, Dave and Karl have all done this sort of thing as well.

My Evolving Career

Posted in Promotion, Shameless by Michael Skeet on Tuesday, March 2, 2010

My latest story is officially available for purchase as of yesterday. EDGE has published Evolve, a triffic vampire anthology edited by Nancy Kilpatrick (no stranger to vampires she) and containing an interesting variety of modern tales of the undead.

My piece is called “Red Blues” and it is, I blush to admit, not the first vampire story I’ve had published. (That would be “Chains,” from a now out-of-print Barnes & Noble anthology called 100 Vicious Little Vampire Stories.) I would be disingenuous if I said I was a big fan of the vampire ethos—and don’t get me started on Twilight, please—and “Red Blues” was written almost in opposition to the perception of vampires as hot and sexy.

Call it “pre-emptively written,” because I actually wrote this story more than a decade ago, and Evolve isn’t the first time I’ve sold it. First time it’s actually made it into print, though. (A long story, and perhaps someday I’ll elaborate.) There’s certainly sex in this story, but the vampire itself is not sexy, if that makes any sense to you. Hell, buy the book and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

The official launch of the anthology is happening at this year’s World Horror Convention in Brighton, England, and I deeply regret that I had to cancel my appearance there. (Too much upcoming pain at my day-job; better you shouldn’t ask.) On the other hand, given my generally pathetic performance when it comes to promotion, perhaps it’s not such a bad thing that I leave this work to others. Perhaps I’ll send a sock-puppet in my stead…

Six-Guns and Swords

Posted in Research by Michael Skeet on Friday, February 26, 2010
Katana blade in National Museum, Tokyo

Blade of a katana, photographed in the National Museum, Tokyo, 2007.

One of things I’ve always enjoyed about Japanese chanbara movies is the direct link with Hollywood westerns. A circular link in the case of Seven Samurai, because Kurosawa always spoke of his admiration for John Ford’s westerns, and Shichin no samurai was itself the inspiration for The Magnificent Seven. Which you already knew, of course.

At any rate, I’ve discovered a significant (to Demon Gate, anyway) commonality between chanbara and western cinema: both of them provide a misleading sense of what fighting was actually like during the period in which they are set. Think about all of those westerns in which the characters blaze away at each other, using revolvers, at distances ranging from dozens to improbable hundreds of yards. Now think about the image of the samurai that pops into your head. You’re seeing a guy with a sword, aren’t you? In the same way that when you think of the Old West what pops into your head is a guy with a six-gun.

The popular image of the samurai is something heavily burnished by the Art of the Samurai exhibit I wrote about the other day. There were dozens of weapons shown in this exhibit—and all but three of them, I think, were swords or daggers.

My problem with this? Most samurai didn’t actually use their swords in combat. This obsessive identification of the samurai with his swords, and the fetishism about swords in general, is yet another artifact of the long Tokugawa period—a period, I hasten to add, in which samurai hardly fought at all except in the occasional equivalent of a gang-fight in the streets.

The difference between the perception and the reality really hit home to me when I got to the final section of The Art of the Samurai. Included in this section was large, six-panel screen dating from the 17th century. On the panels were paintings showing a panoramic view of the Battle of Kawanakajima (1561). This screen is an amazing piece of work, and I regret that I’ve been unable to find any representations of it to which I could link (the original is in the Wakayama Prefecture Museum).

I can, however, make the point that hit home so thoroughly by using this detail from a wood-block print of the Battle of Kawanakajima. This print (by Utagawa Yoshikazu) dates from 1853 (a good 200 years after the screen was painted) and is in the collection of the U.S. Library of Congress. Take a look at the mounted samurai fighting in this image. See how many of them are using swords?

And this image doesn’t represent the situation with nearly the effect of that six-panel screen. In that set of paintings, hardly anyone is fighting with a sword—and most of the samurai shown in the screen are fighting on foot, when presumably it would be easier to wield a sword than it would while fighting from horseback.

The truth of the situation is that, from all the reading I’ve done while researching this novel, samurai in the sengoku jidai fought with their swords only as a last resort. The preferred weapon of the samurai during this period was the yari, or lance (the word is usually translated as “spear,” but this implies that the yari could be thrown, and this was almost never the case; some yari were as big as pikes); before that, the preferred weapon was (as this image implies) the bow.

This is not to complain about the exhibit, understand. The Met is a museum of art, after all, and most practical military weapons are not what you could call attractive; they are intended to be functional. This is what really makes Japanese swords exceptional, in my view: they’re both beautiful and functional. Very functional, if you believe some of the stories.

At any rate, most chanbara movies are as useful for understanding samurai fighting as most westerns are for understanding US Cavalry tactics on the frontier. That’s not their primary goal. But it’s important for us to remember that the popular image of the samurai wading into battle with his sword drawn is at the least misleading.

Oh, and the non-sword weapons in the exhibit? One was a matchlock musket (teppo); one was the blade of a naginata, and only one was a yari blade. And the latter was only in the exhibit because it had been preserved on account of its being more than twice the size of a normal military lance-head.

More Snow

Posted in Research,WorldBuilding by Michael Skeet on Tuesday, February 23, 2010

I should mention (as we await the prospect of yet more furry precipitation) that Jill’s comment yesterday, concerning the relative lack of snowfall in Japan, applies to places like Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo). There are places in Japan that get plenty of snow: Hokkaido, obviously, but also long stretches of the mountains on the northern side of Honshu (the side facing the Sea of Japan). The air coming across the sea is quite moist, and as it rises up to cross over the mountains it dumps that moisture; in the winter this often comes down as snow.

I was particularly pleased to learn about the Snow Monkeys.

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